15 Tips for Shooting & Editing Your Cell Phone Photos by Caryn Caldwell. These are some of my favorite tips for getting the most out of your phone's camera, whether you're posting to Instagram or another social network, sharing kid pics with your in-laws, or snapping casual photos at a friend's wedding.


By posting this I am not claiming to be an expert. Most everything I know about iphoneography is self-taught via luck, experimentation, and sheer stubbornness. (Laziness, too, since my DSLR is too heavy and bulky to come with me on many of my adventures.) Also, my tips may not apply to every device, since I use an iPhone for all shooting and editing. However, I do get asked frequently about the photos I post on Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook, so I wanted a go-to place for my favorite tips. If this is helpful to you, great. If it’s not, then that’s okay, too. And if I left out any important info, please let me know in the comments.

With that out of the way, here are some of my favorite tips for getting the most out of your phone’s camera, whether you’re posting to Instagram or another social network, sharing kid pics with your in-laws, or snapping casual photos at a friend’s wedding.


General Tips


View from a Play Date

View from a play date. Taken on my iPhone 5. Edited with Snapseed.

1. Take a lot of photos and sort them carefully
Let’s be honest: The best way to ensure good photos is to take a lot of pictures and hope a few are salvageable. (I’m talking a hundred or more in a session, unless you’re absolutely positive you’ve already gotten the perfect shot. I once took over seven hundred on a single day up in the mountains.) Since you’re using a digital format, this works as long as you have the phone space and don’t mind sorting through the awful ones to get to the good. Plus the archives provide fodder for the future. (I’m still using those mountain photos all these months later). I try to sort my photos as soon after an outing as I can, immediately deleting those that are blurry or otherwise unusable, and favoriting (currently the heart button at the bottom of the screen on an iPhone) photos I want to examine for possible editing and posting. My phone automatically dumps favorited photos into a file, where they wait — sometimes for weeks or months — for me to choose one to edit. If yours doesn’t have that shortcut, you can likely copy and paste the ones you’d like to edit later into a file of your own creation. It’s a pain, but it saves time in the long run and helps you make more careful choices about which photos to spend your time on.


Reordering filters in Instagram, step 1.

Reordering filters in Instagram, step 1: Go to the end of the filters. Tap “Manage.”

Reordering filters in Instagram, step 2.

Reordering filters in Instagram, step 2:  Move filters into the order you prefer.

2. Default settings are not your friend
Most editing programs allow you to adjust filter strength. Instagram lets you turn Luxe down to be less blatant, or up if you want a stronger effect. When cropping, you can choose the area to be cut out, even zooming in if you wish. Instagram and VSCO have implemented settings to let you reorder your filters.  You are smarter than your phone, so use these options and others to make your photos look the way you think they should.


3. Optimize for the screen/platform your viewers will most likely use
Different social networks have their own quirks — and all of them are subject to change at any time. If you’re planning to post on Instagram, square-format photos generally show up best in the feed and on your profile because they take advantage of the full screen space. As of this moment, Twitter does not show a full photo in the feed, so those that are cropped horizontally often display better. Because of screen and platform performance, photos that are optimized for Instagram on an iPhone screen, for example, sometimes seem a little too in-your-face edited when viewed on Tumblr, Facebook, or Twitter via a regular computer screen. It’s impossible to adjust for every network unless you edit photos differently for each (which, hello, would take a while), so unless you have more free time than I do, optimize for the sites you value the most.


Choosing Photos Wisely

When selecting what to post next, it’s best for your profile if you look at your previous posts.

4. Choose your next photo carefully
This one is going to show my perfectionistic, nerdy tendencies, but what else is new? If you want to put together the best possible Instagram profile — one that will draw viewers in and perhaps lead to more followers — look at your posting grid to see what you’ve put up recently. I just had a black-and-white photo, so I’ll probably hold off a bit on the next (since they tend to be slightly less popular than color photos — on my own profile, at least). I try to space out pictures of my cats and my food; a few are fun, but too many in a row can border on self-indulgent. (Again, on my own profile. If cats and/or food are your specialty, however, have at it. Your followers will likely be thrilled.) Flowers and landscapes are often a good choice for my particular profile. My next pic will sit right above the one of the arch with the sunshine and beside the one of the rocks, so I want to make sure they will all play nicely together. An example: Had I been paying better attention, I would not have posted the two photos in the middle over there, both with the desert and sky, since they may seem repetitive in the grid view even if they don’t when seen individually. Too late to change it now, though. NOTE: If you’re very detail-oriented, check out your Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, Facebook, etc. feeds as well, to make sure your photos work together to show the overall mood you’re going for.


5. Be Aware of changing lighting situations
When editing in the morning or evening, your room may be brightening or darkening without you even noticing. If you don’t back away occasionally, including closing your editing program to make sure your screen’s brightness is appropriate for your individual lighting, you may accidentally brighten or darken a photo too much.


Specific Techniques


Apricot Blooms by Caryn Caldwell

Apricot blooms. Taken via iPhone using Camera+ macro setting. Basic editing in Snapseed. Filtered with C2 preset from VSCO.

6. Macro photos
Ever want to take a photo of something small, but can’t get close enough without your camera’s focus completely losing it? Macro settings are the perfect remedy. Camera+ is my go-to for macro (up-close) photos like the one on the right. I never would have been able to get this close or capture this much detail with the default photo app. Zooming in when cropping helps even more, although too much zooming can lead to lost detail.


Winter afternoon in Arches National Park

A winter afternoon in Arches National Park, Utah. Taken on my iPhone. Edited with Snapseed, including vignetting and edge blur. Rise filter (IG) overtop.

7. Vignetting and lens blur
Most camera apps have settings that allow you to darken and/or blur the edges of a photo. The two I use most for this are Snapseed and Instagram. Vignetting and edge blur (also sometimes called “tilt shift”) are helpful for making the subject of a photo pop. (Be careful not to overdo it, though, unless it’s part of your individual style.) Also, in some programs you can change the focus area for both vignetting and lens blur, moving it to another spot on the screen or increasing or decreasing the size. That way if your subject is not in the dead center (for example, if you’re employing the Rule of Thirds), you can still make it stand out. NOTE: Vignetting (edge darkening) is usually best to do at the end, as many filters include some of their own, so what looked great before applying a filter may suddenly take on a scary, gothic effect you never intended.


River Rocks along the Colorado

River rocks found on a trip down the Colorado River. Taken on my iPhone. Edited with Snapseed. Very light Perpetua and Juno (IG) filters for toning.

8. Filter layering
There’s no rule that says you can only use one filter per photo — especially if you adjust the opacity of each so they’re not too imposing. (Full-strength Lo-Fi plus full-strength Kelvin, for example, would be painful on the eyes.) Here’s how to do it via Instagram: Turn off your wifi access and turn on airplane mode. Choose a filter for your photo (preferably adjusting the opacity if you plan to layer), then take it through the steps to post it. Because Instagram is not connected to the internet, the photo will not post but it will be saved to your camera roll (provided you’ve adjusted your settings to save all Instagram posts to the roll). Open the saved version and continue to edit, either in Instagram or in another app.


Daughter Playing in Culvert

My daughter playing in a culvert. Photo taken on iPhone. Edited in Snapseed (mostly lighting adjustments). Converted to black & white, then Valencia (Instagram) filter overtop for sepia toning.

9. Enhanced black & white
Want more than the typical black-and-white offerings on most editing software? This is where filter layering (above) comes in handy. I love to turn a photo into black-and-white, then import it into Instagram and add a filter overtop. It adds some nice toning.


Sun Shining Through Turret Arch

Sun shining through Turret Arch, Arches National Park, Utah. Processed in Snapseed. VSCOcam S6 present overtop.

10. Play with the light
You know how some people tell you not to shoot into the sun? That’s boring advice. Shoot into the sun. Shoot above the sun or underneath. Shoot in the shadows. See what happens. You may be surprised. Sure, you’ll most likely end up with a lot of awkward photos. But sometimes, if you’re lucky and you pick just the right angle, the light turns a delicious golden color and radiates outward. Then you have a picture you can play with.


Sunflower Field at Dusk

A field of sunflowers at dusk. I used the middle sunflower to block the direct sunlight. Sitting down didn’t get me low enough for this one, so I leaned on one elbow in the damp grass to take this one. Awkward? Sure! But it gave me exactly what I’d been looking for.

11. Play with angles
While we’re on the subject, also play around with different angles, always keeping in mind what’s in the background and where your shadows are. Lie down on the ground and shoot up. Stand directly above a subject and shoot down. Get sideways if you want. Move closer, then back again. Take a lot of photos from a lot of different directions, and see what happens. This is where digital pics are especially handy; if the angle doesn’t work, the photo can be deleted and no one ever has to know. (Shhh!)


12. Blemish removal
If you want to remove a spot, Aviary and Snapseed both have blemish removal (called “Spot Repair” on Snapseed). While Snapseed’s is new and still a little rough, they both help you get rid of unwanted details such as zits, stray hairs, and weird shapes in the background. It usually takes a lot of patience, determination, and practice to remove something small on such a tiny screen, but it can pay off big time.


Grand Canyon Sunset

Grand Canyon sunset before spot editing. The rim is so bright it hurts my eyes, while the background is much dimmer and flatter than it was in person.

Grand Canyon Sunset.

Grand Canyon after spot editing. If I had darkened the entire photo to make the rim less bright, I would have lost the detail in the background. But if I’d brightened the entire photo, I would have singed people’s eyeballs with the brightness of the rim. Hence the wonders of spot editing.

13. Spot editing
Just like default settings don’t work for every photo, changing brightness, saturation, etc. does not always work for every part of a single photo. Snapseed lets you spot-edit, adjusting brightness, contrast, and saturation for as large or small a section as you want. Currently this setting is called “Selective” and is located under “Tools.”


14. Take time away
If you can, step away from a photo for a while before you post it. Sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in the editing, and to make colors too bright, edges too sharpened, and lighting too contrasty. Even a little bit of distance will help your eyes readjust so you can see the photo as it will look to others.


Final Advice


15. Accept that this is not a DSLR
Your phone can take wonderful pictures, and a variety of apps can make them even more wonderful. But your phone has a lot of jobs and one of them is not to be a DSLR. Your photos will probably not print as well as they would if taken on a regular camera. They are more likely to be grainy (such as in the Grand Canyon picture above, which was taken in low light). They are optimized for the tiny screen on which they are shot and edited, so they probably won’t look as great on a computer. But that’s okay! Enjoy them for what they are: A way to take pictures any time you feel like it. A way to be creative and artsy wherever, whenever. And a way to share your personal art with the world if you so desire, without having to use a separate camera and computer.




I love to learn from readers, so if you have tips of your own, please post them in the comments! Same for if you want to share Instagram addresses — either your own, or those of photographers you admire. And while you’re here, you can see more photos on my Instagram profile. I provide shooting and editing information with nearly every picture, for those who want even more specific tips.